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Redesigning Neighbourhood (Photo by Harry Merten)

An elder Dutch resident picks up an axe and start hacking at the weeds and roots to help transform shrubs in a derelict lawn of the Mosque into an Oasis herb and vegetable garden with a greenhouse, benches, and stone pathways only using local resources, skills, talents, and tools from the community.  “I think you always have an inspiration calling, once someone says ‘come on, let’s do it’ people start to move” says the man. He admits,  “A lot of Dutch are still afraid of foreigners. We Dutch are too shy to cooperate with each other, but the more you work the less you are aware that there are limits”.

Sowing vegetable seeds for community garden (Photo by Harry Merken)

A passionate group of volunteers from around the world led by the Brazilian team from Elos united to awaken and cultivate community spirit by realizing dreams through hands on work in a marginalized Dutch neighbourhood.  De Kleine Wereld translated “This Small World” positioned by a large motorway on the North side of Amsterdam has a diverse range of inhabitants.  An array of cultures and countries are represented – with residents coming from dozens of countries a large proportion are new immigrants or refugees.  The district is dull, with busy roads, tall buildings mostly of inhumane scale and a major intersection with a bar, a few shops and a mosque.   A young boy Ahmed from the neighbuorhood notes, “there was recently a stabbing and a shooting. There are few activities here, and people often move to another neighborhood.” He comments, “actually this is a really nice area but people do not know this anymore. ”

Oasis in Dutch Context

While the Netherlands is a country that is considered to be leading in terms of sustainability, innovation, and provision and access to social services there is a deeper and more intangible kind of poverty – one of social fragmentation and isolation. Integration is seen here as the immigrant’s responsibility to learn the language, adapt, make friends, and create a life for oneself while services are doled and playgrounds built. Currently, there is growing fear, resentment and mistrust between Dutch communities and a discriminatory politician was just recently elected third for the country.  Rarely are residents adequately included in a process let alone thought of as the primary actors in their own development of public space and services. This creates a sense of apathy, mistrust, and an unwillingness to engage with the expectation that government will do something yet meanwhile frustration builds when this doesn’t add up.

While the Oasis Game was developed in the Brazilian context of favela communities and natural disaster devastation to awaken and cultivate hands on action to realise collective dreams the Dutch believed it could offer something unique in this alternate context.

The Dutch invited Rodrigo and Paulo from Elos to support a different kind of transformation – a reverse development they saw could use the Brazilian inspiration.  “The Dutch have often lost their sense of community and neighbourliness and have unlearned how to deal with each other. While we cannot help build better houses or find funds we [the Brazilians] offer ‘warmth between people, the joy of working together and sometimes a good hug” says Rodrigo Alonso.

Oasis Beginnings …

Rogrigo Alonso and four friends who had recently graduated from Architecture School were united together in the 1990’s with the joy of inspiring dreams and realizing them with benefits for everyone. As they saw the results of beautiful and safe neighbourhoods where people would no longer wait for the government to improve their lives they were fuelled to spread this process and energy.  This morphed into the creation of the non-profit Instituto Elos and the quick spread of the Oasis Game throughout Brazil from a mere few to 100’s of transformations within a few years time.

The name Oasis was inspired in the History books. An Oasis offers hope, refuge and stability to the tired traveler in the desert. The main idea is that our world is full of vast “deserts”: regions and communities where social and environmental vitality has been destroyed. Nevertheless these places still hold points of light full of hope, beauty and joy.  The Oasis Game had the intention to reveal these points of light around the world, and to stimulate the culture of daily care with one another and with the place where one lives. A community can work together in a cooperative, imaginative and rapid way to build in one day a modern oasis: a physical space that promotes life, joy and restoration.

Ahmed's Interview amongst garden building frenzy (Photo by Harry Merken)

Whole community get hands-on for collective build

In De Klein Verld first the children arrived and they came in droves, collecting stones, picking up trash, digging up weeds, making paths, and beginning the spiral herb garden. They meticulously painted a mural of the flags of the community’s residents on a blank wall considered ‘the most dangerous place in the community’. Many adults remarked they never knew the neighbourhood has so many children. One child enthusiastically boasts, “We’re making a playground of old stuff and we’re nearly finished making a football field and a swing from an old tire.”

Newly created Zip Line gets tested out by tarzan swinging experts (Photo by Harry Merken)

Three girls were singing while painting a dark and dirty tunnel. In painting a colorful mural of flowers and plants, the passage quickly transformed into a bright gallery of magic.

Mural of De Klein Verld's flags get painted by residents (Photo by Harry Merken)

Young and old, black, brown, and white, everyone seemed infected with the Brazilian optimism. As Moroccan women pulled a stubborn stump out from the ground she remarks that the men from the mosque are supposed to maintain the garden. In an area where she used to feel unwelcome she has committed to maintaining the vegetable and herb garden and to cooperate with a group of women from Somalia, Turkey, and Pakistan. They seem motivated by the fact that they can reinvent this spot into a key public space for the whole community while providing nutritious vegetables for their families.  A Dutch and Nigerian woman with green thumbs already have the new greenhouse built from recycled materials under their wing.

As inspiring as this has been it doesn’t surprise me so much as furthers my faith.  I strongly believe that everyone has the urge to contribute to something larger than themselves we are just waiting for the right opportunity to believe it is possible. Through working on hands on projects collectively diverse groups are reminded of what is possible when they start cooperating to create their common dreams – it may actually come true! Rodrigo and Paulo from the Instituto Elos shared their philosophy of not only working towards a ‘better’ world but also aiming to co-create the ‘best’ world possible.

Dancing and signing to brazilian rhythms (Photo by Harry Merken)

Brazilian fire has been lit and the final celebration tops it off!

As the weekend’s work in the De Klein Verld wrapped up it had to end in typical Brazilian form with a decent celebration – this one Oasis style packed with local talents and donated food. People danced and sung in a large circle on the street, kids played soccer in their newly created nets, and Alonso strums the guitar. This community has certainly been ignited with the Brazilian fever.

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